DPLA in the Classroom: Resources on Japanese Internment

Posted by Naomi Forman in July 10, 2014.

As an eighth grade Language Arts teacher, I often find myself sifting through a list of messy links on Google.  I scour crowded Internet pages for background information on Of Mice and Men or the Great Depression. And all too often, after landing upon tens of amateur resources with suspect information, I end my search frustrated and empty-handed. During times like these, the Digital Public Library of America could be an extremely useful tool. The DPLA provides access to thousands of primary sources that teachers can incorporate into classroom units at the middle, high school, or higher-ed levels.

This summer, I am researching ways that teachers can utilize the DPLA to enhance learning and encourage exploration in their classrooms. In this post, I want to share some of the exciting and informative resources I’ve found related to a sample classroom unit: Japanese-American Internment during WWII. Middle and high school Social Studies teachers discuss this topic while teaching about the home front during World War II, often encouraging students to question a black-and-white narrative of the war – one that depicts a heroic U.S. freeing victims of discrimination everywhere. Language Arts teachers might incorporate these resources while reading novels on the Japanese-American experience during that time, such as Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar, or Yoshiko Uchida’s Journey to Topaz. In my own classroom, students learn about Japanese internment through Steve Kluger’s epistolary novel Last Days of Summer. Teachers should feel encouraged to explore the resources I discuss, or to use this explanation as a model for their own research and activities.

In order to get students thinking about the conditions and concerns that led to Japanese internment, teachers may want to begin by sharing samples of World War II propaganda. This poster, depicting Uncle Sam’s fist knocking out Japanese Emperor Hirohito, or this pamphlet cover, proclaiming Japan as the enemy, both clearly illustrate American sentiment toward Japan in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. After examining these dramatic pictures, together with this warning about enemy spies in our midst, students should be able to infer the general hostility and suspicion directed at Japanese Americans during the time. Teachers interested in engaging artistic students might also find this this 1934 painting useful; in it, Japanese-American artist Kenjiro Nomura hints at dark times in his community through stormy clouds and eerie shadows.

"Now for the Knockout" poster of a U.S. arm punching Emperor Hirohito.

Courtesy North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

Cover of "Know Your Enemy: Japan!" Pamphlet with image of armed Japanese soldiers.

“Know Your Enemy” pamphlet. Courtesy Portal to Texas History.

Letters and political documents available through the DPLA are additionally useful as students explore attitudes surrounding Japanese relocation. For instance, letters from Arizona Governor Sidney Osborn express his concern regarding internment in his state, while one letter to the governor argues that internment is necessary to protect Japanese Americans from vigilante violence. The latter text could spark important debate in the classroom, as students consider whether the U.S. government was truly “protecting” its residents by forcibly removing them from their homes. The DPLA also provides access to Executive Order 9066 – the order signed by FDR that establishes military zones and ultimately authorizes the relocation of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans.

Of course, teachers will want to expose students to the perspectives and experiences of those interned in the camps. The DPLA provides access to hundreds of useful photographs; some depict the journey to the camps, while others reveal various aspects of daily life within the camps themselves. This photo of a pre-evacuation sale and this one of jumbled piles of baggage each hint at families’ hasty efforts to sort and assemble belongings before leaving home indefinitely. Students might draw inferences about the crowded and uncomfortable life in the camps by examining this picture of the barracks or this one of residents waiting in line for rations of soap.

Image of baggage of Japanese during Relocation

“Baggage of Japanese during Relocation.”    Courtesy NARA.

Internees line up for soap ration at Manzanar Relocation Center in Manzanar California.

Manzanar Relocation Center. Courtesy NARA.

School children and teachers at Granada Japanese Relocation Camp, Amache, Colorado, ca. 1942

School children and teachers at Granada Relocation Camp. Courtesy USC Libraries.

Other resources available through the DPLA reveal how those living in the camps made time for recreation and education despite difficult circumstances. One photo, for instance, shows a swimming pool at a camp in Poston, Arizona, while another features school children and teachers at a camp in Colorado. Students might also draw inferences about attitudes through newspapers published in the camps. Page 12 of a newspaper from Topaz, displaying a “letter to Washington,” reveals how some internees, perhaps surprisingly, felt eager to serve in the American army despite restrictions prohibiting them from doing so.

A unit on Japanese internment would not feel complete without an analysis of the U.S. government’s efforts to apologize in the 1980s. After reading excerpts from these findings, students will discover how our government ultimately looked back on this period as a “grave injustice.” The act that followed, signed into law by President Reagan in 1988, granted reparations to former internees. Teachers might use these texts to encourage critical evaluation: Was the government’s response adequate? Or was it, instead, too little too late? Can reparations ever undo wrongdoings? And if not, are they worth pursuing?

My tour of the DPLA’s information on Japanese internment revealed a wealth of useful resources for teachers and students. Thousands of photos, posters, and texts – just a sampling of which I listed above – provide insight into the Japanese-American experience, and into the paranoia and panic that pervaded American consciousness during WWII. I hope this post gives teachers some ideas about how they can use the DPLA to create units on this topic, and on other important periods of our collective past.

Cover image: “Poston, Arizona. Living quarters of evacuees of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority.” Courtesy National Archives.


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